10 Petrarchan Sonnets with Examples

The misconception that Petrarchan sonnets are only those sonnets written by Petrarch does not hold much weight as of now when this poetic structure has global recognition in the poetic world. Also, several English poets copied Petrarch in writing sonnets. Therefore, besides the sonnets written by Petrarch himself, every sonnet written on the lines of Petrarch is a Petrarchan sonnet. Typically, Petrarchan sonnets have three major features; high praise/scorn, use of an extended metaphor, and rhyme scheme.

Whereas its theme is concerned, it could be praise or allegation. It is called blazon, and a Petrarchan sonnet takes it to the level of exaggeration. It is done through an extended metaphor in which the beloved, the lover, or something given is compared to something else throughout the sonnet. In rhyme scheme, it follows. ABBA ABBA in its octave and CDECDE structure in its sestet with some variations such as CDDCEE or CDDCDD. Whereas the use of volta or shift in the subject is concerned, it occurs when the sestet starts.

Example #1

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, 1802 by William Wordsworth

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

This is perhaps the best Petrarchan sonnet written by an English poet on the lines of Petrarchan style. It opens up with high praise for Westminster Bridge. The poet calls those people who pass by it dull, arguing that they do not look at its majesty. The main issue discussed is the beauty of the bridge, followed by the description of the beauty of the city compared through an extended metaphor of garment and ends on the resolution of evoking the blessing of God that the people are living in peace. The final rhyme of the sestet is CDCDCD which is somewhat different, but overall this sonnet follows the Petrarchan style.

Example #2

London, 1802 by William Wordsworth

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

This sonnet was also written by Wordsworth in the style of Petrarch. It presents the poet’s dilemma that he wants Milton to have been at this time in England as Wordsworth thinks that his homeland needs that creative soul to make it creative as now it has “stagnant waters.” This problem of the poet continues as he compares his country with a fen and extends it to the end of the octave, after which he starts the volta, which is the personality of Milton and how he would have resolved the issue. The final sestet follows a CDCDCD rhyme scheme that is somewhat different, but overall features of the Petrarchan sonnets are obvious. Therefore, it stands second in our order of ranking.

Example #3

Whoso List to Hunt by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more.
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
Yet may I, by no means, my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore,
Fainting I follow. I leave off, therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters pain
There is written, her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”

Composed by Wyatt, this beautiful sonnet shows the Petrarchan style at work. The poet presents the idea of his beloved as a dear through an extended metaphor. However, it is stated that it is partial copying of Petrarch with some thematic similarity but it does not come at the top due to its similarity with the original theme. Yet, it has become an example in English literature as it shows the issue is being resolved in the sestet with Latin words that nobody should touch the deer as it belongs to Caesar. Even more interesting is the use of literary devices coupled with this extended metaphor. The sestet follows CDDCEE rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter, which is somewhat different, but the octave follows the same typical Petrarchan pattern.

Example #4

Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room by William Wordsworth

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Written by Wordsworth, the English poet of nature, it is a typical Petrarchan model published in 1807. The narrowness of the room of the convent that the nuns feel comfortable in shows the poet comparing this with the bees and their hive. The poet says that all the creatures do not think of it as a prison in which they live their daily lives. The Petrarchan elements of the problem, its explanation, and its resolution show Wordsworth at the peak of his art, showing the resolution in the sestet. The sonnet also follows the same structure of having an octave and a sestet with ABBAABBA and CDDCCD rhyme schemes, respectively, which is somewhat unusual and a departure from the Petrarchan norms.

Example #5

Alas, so all things now do hold their peace! by Henry Howard

Alas, so all things now do hold their peace!
Heaven and earth disturbèd in no thing;
The beasts, the air, the birds their song do cease,
The nightès car the stars about doth bring;
Calm is the sea; the waves work less and less:
So am not I, whom love, alas! doth wring,
Bringing before my face the great increase
Of my desires, whereat I weep and sing,
In joy and woe, as in a doubtful case.
For my sweet thoughts sometime do pleasure bring:
But by and by, the cause of my disease
Gives me a pang that inwardly doth sting,
When that I think what grief it is again
To live and lack the thing should rid my pain.

As the Earl of Surrey, it is stated that along with statesmanship, Howard was also a poet of note and perhaps the first English with Wyatt to have written sonnets and set norms in English poetry. The sonnet sets the stage for sonneteering in English literature with the arrival of these poems. Although the poem gives vent to his emotions of love saying that all the natural things are holding their peace, he is feeling restless, and this comes to an end when he starts the sestet saying that it is resolved when the thing that he is lacking will be with him. The sonnet follows the true Petrarchan norms of problem and solution with ABABABAB and CDCDEE rhyme scheme in its octave and sestet, respectively.

Example #6

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This latest sonnet by Emma Lazarus, “the New Colossus” has also broken norms in that currently, there is no trend of sonnets, let alone Petrarchan sonnets. Emma beautifully connects the Statue of Liberty with some famed Grecian heroes to state that the ancient lands have their own pomp and show, and the western lands have their own ways. Like the Grecian giants, the Statue of Liberty is also blessing the people with freedom. The excellence of the poem lies in presenting the problem, explaining it, and then placing its solution in the sestet. The placement of the volta also shows its Petrarchan style, while the rhyming scheme of ABBAABBA in octave and CDCDCD in the sestet, too, follows the Petrarchan traditions.

Example #7

how do i love thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Following the true Petrarchan style, this beautiful sonnet also falls in the same line. Elizabeth Barrett Browning has not borrowed the style but also the very rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan norms of sonneteering. Structurally, it has the octave with the problem of the love that Elizabeth shows for her lover and the situation of her soul. However, the sestet does not seem to resolve the situation. Obviously, this is her creativity that speaks louder than her style. In fact, the use of “I love thee” as the anaphora, and the out-of-the-way volta shows her skills in sonnet writing. However, in terms of rhyme scheme, it is the same in both an octave as well as the sestet.

Example #8 

Holy Sonnets: At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow by John Donne

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.

This beautiful sonnet of John Donne follows the Petrarchan style, but its subject matter is different. It is about the holy day of the Judgement as Donne asks the angels to blow the trumpets and let the souls arise out of their graves. He goes on to state the fold, the overthrow, the wars, ages, and tyrannies, with several other issues filling up this earth of ours. As the poet is also among the same people, he knows that he has committed sins and seeks heavenly exoneration through his repentance. This volta in the sonnet moves to his humility and repentance when he says that Jesus has sought pardon in his place through his blood. The sonnet also follows the same metrical pattern with the ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme in its octave and CDCDEE in the sestet.

Example #9

The Grave of Keats by Oscar Wilde

Rid of the world’s injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water—it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.

Written in half Petrarchan and half his own style, this beautiful sonnet by Wilde presents the theme of the grave of Keats. He starts the sonnet with a hook that the death of the poet has made him get rid of the “fever and fret” of this world. After heaping praises on the poets, he includes him among the martyrs, calling him Sebastian. Using different strong allusions, Wilde does not change the volta of the sonnet but uses a quotation from Keats to end his thoughts with reference to Isabella. The rhyme scheme, however, is ABBAABBA and CDEEDC in the octave and sestet, respectively, typically Petrarchan.

Example #10 

I, being born a woman and distressed by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity,—let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

This sonnet, written by Edna St. Vincent, also follows the Petrarchan norms in sonnet writing. Edna compares her life with that of her lover, saying that the “fume of life” has subtlety and ambiguity in it. She thinks that as he has left her, her conflict between her emotions and erudition has promoted her to leave him. The beautiful metaphor of love and life, the images of her love and rebellion, and the description of her images sync with the Petrarchan thematic strands. Furthermore, although it does not present a problem, the issue of love in her life finds resolution with the use of volta, which is typically Petrarchan. It follows the same rhyme scheme in its octave as well as in sestet, that is, ABBAABBA and CDCDCD.